Ian Plenderleith bursts the bubble of naive writers and big corporations who claim that football can cure the world's ills

“The beautiful game of football is a religion that unifies the people of the world,” Anand Datla of Indian website the Sports Campus blogged a couple of weeks prior to the World Cup. Once every four years this candied, candle-holding view of football enjoys an airing from all quarters of the game – its fans, writers, players and officials. Oh, and its sponsors too.

“Coca-Cola’s marketing campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup is an extension of the brand’s ‘Open Happiness’ platform, which invites people around the world to share a Coke and enjoy life’s simple pleasures,” says a statement at the Coca-Cola website. “No other brand and sport symbolizes hopefulness, collaboration and unity on a global scale like Coca-Cola and soccer.” Drink a Coke and watch a game of football, and all your problems will go away. It’s like when Live Aid and lots of rich people singing about feeding and uniting the world abolished starvation forever, everywhere.

Surely we can all see beyond this spurious hype and understand that while for a month or so every four years a lot of people in different countries are talking about football, and watching the same games, its wider impact and significance are limited. And yet you still find writers incapable of resisting the conclusion that their favourite sport harbours unproven healing powers, rather like all those alternative medicines unsubstantiated by a single shred of scientific evidence.

Here’s Paul Fletcher of the BBC opining in late May that Honduras had put its political problems behind it thanks to World Cup qualification. And who does he quote to back this theory up? None other than the completely unbiased Honduran FA president Rafael Callejas, who claimed: “If we had not qualified for the World Cup the differences in Honduras would have become enhanced and probably we would have had high levels of violence. People were tranquilised by the game, it gave them hope and happiness.”

Forget the 60 per cent poverty rate and dance, unified and tranquilised, in fountains of Coke! This being the BBC, of course, Fletcher will search for another view, won’t he? Well, standards aren’t what they once were at the Beeb, but even a hobby blogger could have accessed Amnesty International’s website and recent reports about the dismissal of judges critical of last year’s military coup, and the often fatal targeting of several journalists over the past year, “particularly those investigating organised criminal activity, human rights violations or speaking out about the coup d’état”. Aw come on Amnesty, have a Coke and switch the TV on.

Other writers have attempted the “football-as-unifier” approach, only to conclude that it’s a tenuous thesis with, at best, only a temporary application. Sudarsan Raghavan reported from Cameroon for the Washington Post about how Africa hoped to use the tournament to break down “stereotypes of their continent as an incubator of AIDS, corruption and wars”, but adding that even if this happens, it will only be “briefly”. Former Cameroon international Thomas Libih was quoted as saying football “is a vehicle for peace”. Divisions between Francophone and Anglophone Cameroon “evaporate whenever the Lions play”, Raghavan wrote.

Unfortunately, though, the Lions don’t play every day, while profound poverty intensified by the global recession is ever present. “People are starving,” Cameroon Times sports journalist Simon Pierre Etoundi is quoted as saying. “They are more worried about their survival.” Not even a Coca-Cola air drop mercy mission can do anything about that.

Agence France-Presse looked at how South Africa would use the tournament to heal racial divisions , and cited the dutifully cheerful president Jacob Zuma: “It is heartening to see how the entire nation is united in support. This harmony should define us and resonate in a wide range of spheres even outside sports.” This pie-in-the-sky optimism was offset by a spoilsport sociology professor, Ashwin Desay, who acknowledged that during the competition “there will be levels of excitement. How can there not be? Suddenly, you got all this adulation and attention.”

But, “after the party there will be a huge hangover,” Desay went on. “National unity can’t be built on soccer, especially in a country where the inequalities take such a racialised form.” Quick, Mr Blatter, blow on a vuvuzela! But despite the racket from the horns, the AFP report goes on to cite the South Africa unemployment stats (four per cent among whites, 40 per cent among blacks), as well as the huge income disparities between black and white, soberly concluding: “The World Cup won’t change those gaps.”

That’s because football is a game, and not an especially peaceful one, that too many vested interests have elevated to a pedestal where the expectations of mass healing and harmony are more akin to those of cults and quackery. It’s a mere wonderful sport that people play and watch, and sometimes they enjoy it and sometimes they fight about it. Or sometimes they exploit it for political or commercial reasons. In truth, the idea of football as the unifier of all people and nations stands up for about as long as it takes the fizz to evaporate from a freshly poured glass of Coke.

From WSC 281 July 2010

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